We all understand that, absolutely, 2021 is an 'asterisk' year. It's not just for athletes; it is an asterisk year for musicians who could perform only on their balconies, for teachers who had to say 'turn your video on' countless times, for rowing photographers who could mostly take photos from bridges and empty grandstands; really for everyone.
So most notably at the 2021 IRA, none of the three defending Varsity Eights champions - the Yale Heavy men, the Cornell light men, and the Stanford light women, from way back in 2019 remember - sent an eight to the event.
And while the Men's V8 field is the largest ever, the lightweight events are at a low ebb, with six women's doubles, three men's and three women's fours, three men's 2V eights, five men's eights, and only two women's eights.
And then even before it got underway, the 2021 IRA was over for one crew, as Santa Clara had a positive Covid test and was forced to withdraw from the regatta on Thursday night.
But by the end of Friday morning, there were a half-dozen national champions, and it was as much a testament to resilience and love of the sport as it was to speed across the water, and nearly everyone was just happy to have been able to show up and race.
The winners of the top lightweight events were the Princeton women, who won their first IRA since 2003, and the Navy men, who won their first IRA since 2004, and did it emphatically, winning all three light men's events.
We all know of programs that have barely rowed this year, and other that have more or less trained all year, steering around (and sometimes over) Covid incidents. Both of these winners tend toward the former group; Princeton was still rowing ergs and small boats well after much of the country was racing, and the Navy light men alternated regularly from two weeks on to two weeks off as Covid appeared among the ranks at the academy.
The Princeton light women have been having a very solid year despite only getting into their eight a few weeks ago.
"When we started training together as a team on campus, we had a lot of restrictions initially," six-seat Lauren Sanchez said. "We were in small pods, erging outside in the snow six feet apart, but from the day that we got back together, you could tell that the girls that were here wanted to be here, were ready to train, were in good shape to train, and were going to take any opportunity to race whatever we could."
"From the day that our season got canceled last year, our coach essentially told us we're training for IRAs 2021," four-seat Isabelle Chandler said. "Even though there was a ton of uncertainty throughout this entire past year, like this has been our goal - to line up on the start line IRAs 2021. And as soon as we got back on campus and started training together, we just set our minds to it"
When they finally got the chance to race against their lightweight peers today, they went for it.
"Going into the race we were really confident in our boat, how we had been training, and we just wanted to get out there on the start line and race the best race we could possibly race," Chandler said. "Even in our practice starts we were feeling great, ready to go. And I think literally from the first stroke of this race, that that's when I knew that we were a really fast boat, and we did what we came out to do."
"We're super grateful that Wisconsin was there and to have a competitor, and we could have a lightweight event to race," Sanchez said. "From there we really wanted to focus on how we were rowing and to put out the best piece we could. Especially because more than half our boat is seniors, and this is our last time on the course, we just really wanted to leave it all out there."
"We raced it for the seniors in the boat, the freshmen in the boat, and the class of 2020 as well, who missed the season last year," Chandler added.
Navy light men's coach Shawn Bagnall noted that the post-finals training period ahead of the IRAs was among his career highlights, and it showed up today as the Navy lights swept all three men's events.
"Before we left (Annapolis), I told the crews that it had been one of the best camps that I've had as a coach in 20 plus years," he said. "I really have enjoyed them being part of the team being joyful and grateful to be in practice every day, embracing this idea that, hey, I get to challenge myself today against the heavyweights. We get to go out and challenge ourself against two of the best teams in the sprints league, Penn and Princeton."
The heavyweights are coached by Rob Friedrich, who coached the lightweights when they won in 2004.
"Having somebody like Rob running the heavyweight side, having been the last coach to have done it in '04, and us having the ability to go out and piece those heavyweight guys every day, we're extremely grateful to have them in the boathouse and be able to work with them," he noted.
"I can't give credit to the athletes enough for being resilient," he said. "We had layoffs of two and three weeks throughout the spring where we didn't even see the athletes. They were quarantined in the hall, and the entire academy was shut down. I know that's the same thing that these other teams have dealt with this year, so I could not be happier that they took this two and a half weeks we had and really made the most of it."
Racing continues tomorrow with the heavy men's finals.
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